Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Songs in the Key of Life: Willin'

A brief programming note: This series was formerly known as The Essentials, but I never quite loved that name, probably because most of what I write about here consists of things I consider essential. So, cribbing the name of a killer Stevie Wonder album, I'm rechristening this series Songs in the Key of Life, which seems like an appropriate title for the songs I'm writing about here.

This is the first of what I hope will be semi-regular explorations of songs that move me in some way, that make me think or smile or feel instantly better when they come on. They're songs I can't get enough of, ever. We all have 'em, they're our essential songs, our jams. They make life that much sweeter for the few minutes we're listening to them. These songs also tend to have a connection to certain memories, people, or places in our lives, which helps make them so essential. These essays won't be done in any order, instead I'll just write about the songs I love as I'm reminded of them.

Following that approach, the song I'll cover here is one I heard the other night for the first time in a while, so it's been playing in my head ever since. I'm fairly certain that most of my friends don't know that I love this song. It's Linda Ronstadt's cover of Lowell George's "Willin''. As much as I've grown to love Ronstadt I never used to listen to her much. But whenever I did, I would invariably say "Dammit I should listen to more Linda Ronstadt!" So I've been doing just that. I think I used to pigeonhole her as "just" country rock, but the more I've listened to her the more I see that she didn't fit in any one category and instead combined rock, country, pop, southwestern, bluegrass and more to form her own sound. And obviously it's her voice that everyone remembers. Its distinctive qualities are difficult to describe, maybe it's something in the timbre that sets her apart to me. She inhabits her songs fully while singing the hell out of them because she knows no other way to do it. In that regard she reminds me of other vocalists whose work I hold on a pedestal, including Dusty Springfield, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), and Neko Case to name a few. Ronstadt, like those three, has a powerhouse voice, but one that she modulates from verse to chorus to verse, often so subtlety it's not even noticeable that she's done it. She's so good at it that she makes it sound effortless.

So, she's truly gifted but also smart and in total control of her voice. That's rare. It makes me realize why she was so popular in the 1970s. As a young know-it-all discovering the music that spoke to me in the 1990s, I tended to ignore what I considered soft rock from the '70s. But as I grew up and explored some of it, I realized I was missing out on some amazing songs and bands. I started discovering people like Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac, Delaney and Bonnie, and Jackson Browne, artists I'd previously assumed didn't have anything to offer me. I was wrong. And Ronstadt, with her talent and command of a song, was a revelation to me.

I went on a YouTube binge of her music recently and I kept coming back to "Willin'", which was first performed by George and his band Little Feat. "Willin'" is so '70s it's almost cliched, from the copious references to weed to it being sung from the perspective of a trucker because truck drivers were cool in the '70s, man. But once you listen to the song enough it takes on a timeless quality because of the real poetry at work between music and lyrics. I went through several versions of the song on the YouTube binge—the original, solo versions by George, a duet between George and Ronstadt live on radio, and the recent Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet take (which is a version I already knew and loved). Ronstadt's cover remains my favorite, so it's the one I'll be talking about mostly. And her '70s live performances of it are the ones I keep coming back to. She spins the song in a direction I'm not sure anyone else has before or since. She's completely convincing as the road-weary narrator, driving through the night and occasionally up to no good, but she just as easily might be drifting from town to town simply because she can't imagine doing anything else. That sounds like the life of a touring musician, so I'm sure she drew some inspiration from her own experiences when she settled into the song. And settle in she does. She moves in and makes herself right at home. Ronstadt conveys a feeling of not just performing the song, but living in it, becoming one with it. Her strong connection to the songs is a huge part of what makes her music so captivating. At the start of the live clip of "Willin'" I embedded above—which is my favorite take on the song—she's singing about being "warped by the rain, driven by the snow", that she's "drunk and dirty, don't ya know" and you can hear the emotions welling up in her voice. Then she follows that with "but I'm still..." and pauses briefly, allowing the tension to build in that tiny moment. And when she speaks the last word of that line, "Willin'", she relays exhaustion, contentedness, resignation, and determination all at once with her delivery of that one word. It's stunningly good. George and others sing it similarly, but Ronstadt's the only one that sends a shudder down my spine when I hear it. Her subtlety here is as powerful as any singer belting out high notes. She pulls off the difficult task of underplaying the moment, which helps strengthen the song's impact. 

"Willin'" is a perfect Sunday morning song, especially during summer. The lyrics are filled with details about people and places (and drugs) and complex emotions, all wrapped up in gorgeous melodies. It's short and sweet, and it leaves you wanting to play it on repeat forever. There's something accessible to the song's story; even if we can't relate to the life of a truck driver (not many of us can), we can still relate to being on the open road with fraught and difficult experiences behind us and endless possibilities ahead of us. I didn't even get the trucker references at first, probably because it wasn't the '70s when I first heard it and also because it's always been easy for me to take good song lyrics and find at least a kernel of meaning that I can relate to in some way. And in this case, add Linda Ronstadt into the mix and we move from a compelling song to a spellbinding one. Her's is the definitive version, in my book.

There's something completely unique about most of Linda Ronstadt's covers, even when she stays relatively faithful to the original. Her voice is so transcendent that it elevates the songs to new heights. George wrote a terrific, hook-filled, melodically beautiful song in "Willin'". It's not his fault that I think Ronstadt performed it like no one else has before or since. She did that with most songs she covered. She was just that good


And as an addendum of sorts to this appreciation, I wanted to note that Linda Ronstadt has provided me with more than just the joy of her music in recent years, she’s also helped me with her honest interviews about living with Parkinson’s disease and how it’s impacted her life, including forcing her retirement from music. My father was diagnosed with the disease a few years before I heard that Ronstadt had been also. A friend sent me a lengthy interview with her soon after that, where she described the daily struggles of living with Parkinson’s. Everything she had to say was familiar to me, having witnessed my own father going through the same struggles whenever I’d visit him. My father passed away in October of last year. Parkinson’s had  taken so much from him in a relatively short period of time, which devastated my mother and I slowly, over  and over, every day for years. Now that’s he’s at peace, I’ve noticed that I’ve become more enamored with Linda Ronstadt’s music, possibly because of her connection to what my father experienced, and in some way listening to her music reminds me of him, and it’s good for me to do as many things as possible that remind me of him. When I see performances of Ronstadt’s from the 1970s, when she was young and full of vitality, her striking beauty enhanced tenfold whenever she flashed that sweet grin, I’m reminded of my father and how vital he always was, and how sweet his smile was also. Images of him from before the diagnosis have come creeping back into my mind more often lately. This is monumental, because for the years that Parkinson’s was slowly taking him away from us, it was incredibly difficult to call up what he was like before this. Even though the Parkinson’s was here for such a relatively short portion of his life, it became too all-consuming for us to see much beyond it. So I’ve found that watching some of Linda Ronstadt’s greatest performances online has afforded me with an opportunity to have something else that reminds me of my father as he was, both in his final years and especially for all of those years when he was my protector and number one fan. For that, I’m eternally grateful for the music of Linda Ronstadt.

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